Real Sociedad vs Athletic Bilbao: David Moyes speaks up

New manager’s presence is already being felt at Real Sociedad, says midfielder Esteban Granero, as the team chase a derby win on Sunday night

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The Independent Football

David Moyes was five games into his reign as Manchester United manager last season when he faced his first Manchester derby. Tonight – once again five games into a new job – he is back taking on the neighbours.

United were beaten 4-1 by Manchester City last September, but at a grey and wet San Sebastian this week, the former Queens Park Rangers and now Real Sociedad midfielder, Esteban Granero, has spoken far more positively about how things will go this time when his side face Athletic Bilbao in the Basque derby.

Granero can even see Moyes leading a currently struggling La Real team back into the Champions League one day. “That is the challenge. The president wants it and I think the coach has come for that. We achieved it last season and we want it again. We know we have to go one step at a time but we have to  be confident and ambitious,” he says.

Granero was straight on to the phone to close friend Juan Mata when Moyes was confirmed as Real Sociedad’s new coach. “Juan spoke very highly of him. We all know what the big clubs are like – the criticism comes quickly and the coach always pays. But their loss is now our gain.”

One might expect the Basque derby to be intimidating but it is Spain’s friendliest meeting between neighbours. “Not unlike the Merseyside derby,” says Granero, who played in two west London derbies in his season under Harry Redknapp.

As an English speaker  he can be a vital link between Moyes and his players. Having said that, Granero was the player the 51-year-old Scot mistakenly shouted ‘Stefano!’ at in his first game in charge. He doesn’t see the language being a problem, however.

“Aside from the excellent translator he has alongside him, there are five or six players who speak English and our goalkeeper Enaut Zubikarai has just started with an English teacher, too. Harry’s [Redknapp] London accent made him tougher for me to understand than David.”

Moyes has already been teased for saying “uno, dos, tres, cuatro” in Spanish at a recent press conference before slipping straight back into English. But inside the club he’s gained respect for making an immediate effort to learn the language.

John Toshack, the former Real Sociedad coach, was famous for his own brand of “Spanglish”, translating English phrases such as “headless chicken” literally into Spanish, much to the amusement of locals, but it did not stop him being a success.

“Toshack was a legend because of what he achieved, not because of the phrases but they added to the legend,” says Granero. “Moyes has arrived at a moment when we have more desire than ever to learn and improve. Anything he says to us to that end, be it in Spanish, English or Chinese, is going to be taken on board.”

Granero has also played for Jose Mourinho and Manuel  Pellegrini at Real Madrid. “They are a lot more alike than people would imagine. They each project a different image but the reality is  Pellegrini shows plenty of fire in the dressing room and Mourinho usually stays calm.”

He doesn’t regret his year in England, despite it ending with relegation from the Premier League in 2013. “I came away from England a better player,” he says, and understands what his new coach wants when he demands more aggression. “When I first moved to England I would find myself stopping during games, thinking that the referee was going to give a foul but I soon realised you are playing under what seems like slightly different rules. In the Premier League, if you are not aggressive then you don’t touch the ball. David will get used to the referees here.”

Moyes has demanded more intensity from his players but he is learning fast that referees often have a very different understanding of what constitutes a booking. Today there might be more leniency if referee David Fernandez Borbalan takes derby passions into account.

Three points for Moyes would lift his team to within two points of mid-table Athletic Bilbao. The damp north of Spain has welcomed the former United manager, a derby win would really seal that new bond.